Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

A Guatemalan Town’s Recovery from Tropical Storm Agatha

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While the rest of the world stared down the bottomless hole in Guatemala City’s Zone 2, the small town of San Antonio Palopó around Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, was digging its way out of the aftermath of Tropical Storm Agatha using sticks, brooms, shovels, and their bare hands.

The mostly indigenous town of 14,000 suffered the destruction of 43 houses, 19 deaths, 2 still missing, 4 hospitalized, and more than 500 people evacuated to six shelters around the town’s municipal building. Like many small rural towns in Guatemala, San Antonio‘s water system was destroyed during the storm so potable water was scarce and in this case came from run-off or contaminated water.

Here, women and children crowded around to scoop up the muddy water into their large ceramic jars three times bigger than their heads. After the women filled their jars they climbed, sometimes barefoot, over recently fallen rocks and large pieces of corrugated tin and broken wood that stuck out like over-sized muddied splinters. The community’s only means of entering or leaving their town continues to be by small boats because the four bridges remained collapsed. This also meant being cut off from supplies, food, water, and machinery to help dig people out of the rubble.

I recently caught a couple of lanchas and climbed my way up to the town. It rests high above the clouds, ensconced between steep ravines covered in lush green forest and Lake Atitlan‘s now murky waters. I was helping to document the damages as part of a collaboration with a nonprofit called Wuqu’Kawoq, which was bringing in a team of doctors and engineers to help communities with the least help and support from international organizations and nonprofits.

Government aid was scarce and Cooporation Española, Entre Amigos, and others were among some organizations bringing in the medium-sized plastic bags of dried pre-cooked food. The Municipality building had become a hub of activity. Food and water was distributed here, and it had become the home of many who were not house-less, with any news of help heard through the CB-radio.  

They were expecting us at the Municipal building and we were welcomed by a delegation of the town’s leaders except for the mayor. It was a very formal process, which contrasted immensely with the state of things around us.

“You’ve come at a very sad time in our municipality. The entire community is sad…as leaders are worried because we don’t know how to solve the problems here,” said Jesus Alvarez, Second Council for the Mayor of San Antonio.

She informed us not surprisingly, that the foremost problem was that of potable water in the entire area where there were now cases of water-borne illnesses. While they had doctors and nurses, they had no medications to treat the patients and not enough purified water to treat the illness. 

The second biggest problem was the limited rations due to the lack of transportability. They only had enough for 1,500 meals currently in the schools and some families were lacking adequate food supplies even with the current relief. There was an air of immense fatigue and anxiety in the community that Alvarez said was the result of susto, fright and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The site of where a single landslide had killed 19 people was just past the municipal building. Water from the river had washed the earth below, taking with it some supporting structures after the river had overflowed. This had caused a massive landslide that destroyed 35 houses in one area where there were only two community members available to work on removing the debris and searching for the two missing persons—a grandmother and her granddaughter.

The department of Sololá was one of the most affected of Guatemala’s 22 departments. The damages in the entire country are comparable, according to a PrensaLibre report, to Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. That disaster left 6,000 houses destroyed, 268 dead and 121 disappeared. In comparison, Tropical Storm Agatha destroyed 7,597 houses destroyed, 172 dead and 101 disappeared. Why that didn’t make more news than a sinkhole, is one of those mysteries I cannot fathom. 

Some of the photos from the damages can be seen here and the video of our trip to San Antonio is here

Kara Andrade is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a Central American-based freelance journalist who has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune, among other publications.


Kara Andrade is an Ashoka fellow working in Central America. She is co-founder of HablaCentro LLC and NFP which develops curriculum to help people in Latin America become more digitally literate and civically engaged; conducts trainings in the use of digital tools to create more informed citizens; and connects collaborators to opportunities for economic sustainability. She has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for various publications, including The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.


Tags: Guatemala, Lake Atitlan, Tropical Storm Agatha
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